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Supporting a child who has been sexually abused

Supporting a child who has been sexually abused

If your child has been sexually abused they'll need your ongoing support. Dr Elly Hanson, clinical psychologist and adviser to CEOP, gives some tips about how best to support them and look after yourself.

Parents text content

A supportive approach from parents and carers significantly reduces the chance a child will have long-term difficulties as a result of abuse. 

Signs that may indicate your child is struggling with abuse-related difficulties:

All children are different but you should be aware of unusual (i.e. not typical for your child) and persistent signs such as:

  • difficulties sleeping
  • aggressive or highly irritable behaviour
  • withdrawal from other people
  • low mood (often accompanied by changes in appetite, socializing, sleep patterns)
  • spacing out
  • signs of self-harm

This list is not exhaustive. People express difficulties differently and children express things differently at different ages. These are just some of the more common difficulties.

Difficulties related to abuse can arise at a later point because of certain triggers or realisations.

These signs could equally mean that your child is struggling to cope with something else, such as stress related to school, friendships, family etc.

How to respond

If you notice any of these things, it is worth talking to your child, asking about how they are, reminding them of your support and discussing things that might help.

One route is your child or you talking to your GP, who might then refer your child on to a service or counsellor for further support. You could also find out whether there is specialist abuse-related support in your area by contacting The Survivors Trust.

Thinking about yourself…

Finding out that your child has been abused is a traumatic experience.

It is important for you, as well as for your child and other family members, to make space to ‘process’ how you are feeling about it all, and receive any support you might need. This will help you to support your child effectively. 

Some tips for you:

  • The main message from lots of research is that there are many different useful ways of coping and moving forward from trauma, but that ‘avoidance’ is often unhelpful. Avoiding thoughts, feelings and parts of life connected with a trauma can be helpful initially, but can lead to the trauma feeling emotionally ‘raw’ for a lot longer.
  • Talking to someone is often helpful, and this might either be a person or people you feel close to or a stranger such as a counsellor.
  • It can be useful to give yourself planned mental space. People often find it helpful to have some thinking time while doing something semi-automatic like going for a walk or a drive. Thinking while trying to sleep is less helpful and in this situation it might be good to plan for yourself a time to think during the next day.
  • When you feel something difficult (for example, anger, sadness, horror) take time to notice how you feel and express it in a way that helps (for example, talking or writing).
  • Think back to how you have coped in previously stressful situations and see whether there might be things that you did then that could help now.